Wolfgang Puck, who owns five Spagos (plus eight other restaurants, 14 cafés and 30 or so Wolfgang Puck Expresses), has worked in noisy, crowded, chaotic professional kitchens since he was 14. But when it comes to the holidays, he keeps his cooking stress-free. For this year's dinner, that means a menu of dishes that evoke his childhood growing up in St. Veit, Austria.
Puck starts off with chestnut soup, explaining that he fell in love with roasted chestnuts during winters in St. Veit, stopping after school to buy them from a vendor in the town square. His soup is a tribute to that ritualminus the labor-intensive peeling. Puck uses frozen or vacuum-packed chestnuts, which are already roasted and peeled. "You can make the soup ahead and refrigerate or even freeze it," he says as he watches it simmer. "Add less liquid and it's a great side dish."
For the main course, a beef stew with red currant jelly, Puck goes to the refrigerator and takes out a bowl in which he has marinated chunks of boneless beef shoulder with aromatic vegetables, herbs, juniper berries and red wine overnight. He puts the meat and vegetables in a colander and waits half an hour for the liquid to drip away: Excess moisture can hinder the browning that adds so much flavor to stews. He heats peanut oil in a skillet, making sure it's very hot before adding the beef: "If you start with cold oil, the food will stick." He waits for the oil to give off wisps of smoke, a sign that it has reached the right temperature.
With the beef stew, Puck will serve cheese spaetzle, Austria's traditional dumplings. He brings a pot of salted water to a boil and on top rests a colander filled with chilled batter. As if spreading thick icing, he sweeps a spatula back and forth to force the batter through the colander's big holes. Once the dumplings are done, he lifts them out and chills them.
The dessert is Puck's version of vacherin, the French meringue and ice cream classic. He peers into the bowl of a jumbo stand mixer while blending sugar and egg whites for the meringue, then turns off the machine when the mixture has thickened enough for the beaters to leave trail marks. He melts chunks of imported bittersweet chocolate with cream in a double boiler and pours the sauce into a thermos bottle to keep it warm and at the ready.
But Puck seems to have made more chocolate sauce than he'll need. "Of course I did," he says. "Heat it up with a little milk the next morning and you've got the best hot chocolate ever. Now, that's my idea of a great holiday present."
Norman Kolpas is the author of more than 40 books. He works on all of Wolfgang Puck's editorial projects.